It’s hard to believe it was less than four months ago that the Conservatives won the 2015 UK General Election with a clear majority, forming the most right-wing government in many years. I argued at the time that they didn’t win it so much as Labour lost it by not presenting an alternative — an interpretation based on the fact that the people of Scotland, who were offered an alternative political philosophy, overwhelmingly voted for it. The common narrative that Labour lost by moving too far to the left makes no sense at all to me.
Now everything has changed.
For those who have been hiding under rocks (or who are just not interested in UK politics), Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election — didn’t just win it, in fact, but won overwhelmingly, with 59.5% of first-preference votes, the next closest challenger getting only 19%. Much against the will of the Parliamentary Labour Party, they are now saddled with a leader who, for his whole 32-year tenure as an MP, has been motivated by clear principles.
At this stage, what those principles actually are seems almost a side-issue.
One of my fond hopes arising from Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is that now we have two major-party leaders who disagree about fundamentals, we just might start to see something approaching actual political journalism, about issues, in the mainstream press. For me the low-point of the last election was probably the pair of stories about how George Osborn was awful because he bought a too-expensive hamburger while Ed Miliband was awful because he ate a sandwich in the wrong way. In the absence of substantive issues to report on, one can almost forgive the press for this. But now they will have no such excuse.
So what are Corbyn’s principles? They are many, and I don’t at all agree with all of them. To pick a few areas of disagreement at random, I don’t want us to pull out of Europe*, and I support selective schools. I am not at all sure whether I agree with him on cancelling Trident. I have grave reservations about using quantitative easing to fund infrastructure (but then I had grave reservations about using QE to bail out banks, too, and that happened anyway).
But broadly, his position is one that I share: that it’s better for a country to share wealth across all of its citizens than for a small minority to hoard the great majority of it. That shouldn’t be controversial, of course — but the evidence says that it is. In thinking through the deficit earlier this year, I ended up figuring that the choices come down to this: spend less (hurting poor people) or tax more (hurting rich people). And I found myself thinking that the latter is obviously the lesser of two evils. On this, Corbyn agrees — and to me, that lies at the very foundation of a political-economic philosophy.
So at last, we find ourselves back in the classic political position, as Andrew Rilstone memorably summarised it:
The Red Party said, ‘We believe in Equality, in particular Economic Equality. We think that the Poor should be a bit Richer, and the Rich should be a bit Poorer. We are prepared to sacrifice a bit of Freedom in order to bring that about.’
The Blue Party said, ‘We believe in Freedom. We think that people should be as far as possible be left alone and allowed to do whatever they like, and we are prepared to sacrifice a great deal of Equality in order to bring that about.’
I think this is an important discussion to have, and it pains me enormously that it’s one we’ve not had in British politics since about 1997. (Not outside of Scotland, anyway.)
So I happily welcome Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of our opposition, and I look forward to seeing how the next Prime Minister’s Question Time works out.
* “I don’t want us to pull out of Europe”: to clarify, neither does Corbyn: but he doesn’t rule out switching to an Out position depending on what Cameron negotiates for the UK. For me, it would take a lot — a very, very badly bungled negotiation — to make it worth pulling out.